by Edith Wharton
A Norton Critical Edition edited by Kristin O. Lauer and Cynthia Griffin Wolff
Ends with authoritative text backgrounds and contexts criticism
The narrator is curious about lonely and quiet Ethan Frome. He begins to learn a bit more when Frome begins giving the narrator rides to work.
We go back in time 24 years earlier
“The guests were preparing to leave, and the tide had already set toward the passage where coats and wraps were hung, when a young man with a sprightly foot and a shock of black hair shot into the middle of the floor and clapped his hands. The signal took instant effect. The musicians hurried to their instruments, the dancers–some already half-muffled for departure–fell into line down each side of the room, the older spectators slipped back to their chairs, and the lively young man, after diving about here and there in the throng, drew forth a girl who had already wound a cherry-coloured ‘fascinator’ about her had, and, leading her up to the end of the floor, whirled her down its length to the bounding tune of a Virginia reel.
“Frome’s heart was beating fast. He had been straining for a glimpse of the dark head under the cherry-coloured scarf and it vexed him that another eye should have been quicker than his. The leader of the reel, who looked as if he had Irish blood in his veins, danced well, and his partner caught his fire. As she passed down the line, her light figure swinging from hand to hand in circles of increasing swiftness, the scarf flew off her head and stood out behind her shoulders, and Frome, at each turn, caught sight of her laughing panting lips, the cloud of dark hair about her forehead, and the dark eyes which seemed the only fixed points in a maze of flying lines” (14).
“The face she lifted to her dancers was the same which, when she saw him, always looked like a window that has caught the sunset” (16).
Frome is beginning to care more for Mattie, his wife’s cousin, than for his wife.
I think Frome’s wife, Zeena, knows what is going on.
Zeena will be in town overnight to see a new doctor. Frome and Mattie will be alone.
“There was in him a slumbering spark of sociability which the long Starkfield winters had not yet extinguished. By nature grave and inarticulate, he admired recklessness and gaiety in others and was warmed to the marrow by friendly human intercourse” (29).
“…the laughter sparkling through her lashes” (34).
A special dish is broken during dinner. When will Zeena learn of the broken dish and how it was being used over a flirtatious dinner?
Mattie and Ethan spend a quiet evening together, both too nervous to really do anything.
All Ethan thinks about is Mattie though they’ve never touched or kissed. His wife has now returned. Ethan now has to secretly fix the dish they broke.
Zeena finds the broken dish. Mattie confesses.
Ethan is going to ask the Hales for an advance so he can run away but he changes his mind. He just couldn’t lie to them.
“She clung to him without answering, and he laid his lips on her hair, which was soft yet springy, like certain mosses on warm slopes, and had the faint woody fragrance of fresh sawdust in the sun” (60).
Zeena knows all…you can tell by the clues and the way she acts.
“…all their intercourse had been made up of just such inarticulate flashes, when they seemed to come suddenly upon happiness as if they had surprised a butterfly in the winter woods…” (63).
Mattie and Ethan stop by a shared memory space on the way taking her to the train. They share a sled ride down a long run and almost hit a tree. Mattie decides instead of parting that they should sled down the hill once again and that is when they hit the tree. They’d rather die together than part.
“…and her dark eyes had the bright witch-like stare that disease of the spine sometimes gives” (71).
Read this short novella to find out the juicy details! The story is only 72 pages long (in this version). Just an afternoon’s read.
I didn’t read all of the background and context material (too boring), but I did find something of note in a piece by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. Her essay is called “They Hysterical Woman: Sex Roles and Role Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America”
“Hysteria as a chronic, dramatic, and socially accepted sick role could thus provide some alleviation of conflict and tension, but the hysteric purchased her escape from the emotional and –frequently–from the sexual demands of her life only at the cost of pain, disability, and an intensification of woman’s traditional passivity and dependence.”
“The effect of hysteria upon the family and traditional sex-role differentiation was disruptive in the extreme. The hysterical woman virtually ceased to function within the family. No longer did she devote herself to the needs of others, acting as self-sacrificing wife, mother, or daughter: through her hysteria she could and in fact did force others to assume those functions. Household activities were reoriented to answer the hysterical woman’s important needs. Children were hushed, rooms darkened, entertaining suspended, a devoted nurse recruited. Fortunes might be spent on medical bills or for drugs and operations. Worry and concern bowed the husband’s shoulders; his home had suddenly become a hospital and he a nurse. Through her illness, the bedridden woman came to dominate her family to an extent that would have been considered inappropriate–indeed, shrewish–in a healthy woman. Taking to one’s bed, especially when suffering from dramatic and ever-visible symptoms, might also have functioned as a mode of passive aggression, especially in a milieu in which weakness was rewarded and in which women had since childhood been taught not to express overt aggression. Consciously or unconsciously, they had thus opted out of their traditional role.”
I do remember reading that back in the day when some husbands became increasingly unsatisfied with their wives, they would begin to make a case that the wife was hysteric or was losing her mind. In this way, they could have their wives committed against their will. They would leave their wives in asylums while they married new, younger wives. Can you imagine having to resort to hysterics in order to rest? We’ve come a long way, baby.